Getting weird with TOV: our rabbit hole of recording techniques

Welcome to The Outer Vibe’s world of turning knobs, twisting dials, and getting weird. In my last journal entry, I described some of the cinematic surf disco sounds you can expect to hear in the latest set of songs we just recorded, and now I’m going to dig a little deeper and take you on a tour of how and why we decided to capture said sounds. It’s sort of like Alice In Wonderland falling down the rabbit hole, but potentially even weirder. I enlisted Nick and Wonder to help me on this one because, while I can write flowery words just fine, I needed help making sure I get all the tech-y details right. Because hey… I’m just the trumpet player.

If you’re a details person, an analytical person, or if you just love music and are curious about how we piece the puzzle together, then this post is for you! I am all of the above (that’s the reason I majored in Music Theory) so I hope you’re ready for a thorough read. I love writing this kind of stuff because I can nerd out as though I’m writing a research paper, but no one’s grading me. Judge all you want, though. I double dog dare you.

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A lot of our production and recording ideas are very carefully planned out, but we also leave room for spontaneity – and believe me, we come up with some pretty good last-minute ideas.

One of our recent epiphanies was this: a big part of The Outer Vibe’s sound is to blend of vintage sounds with modern production. It seems like a simple obvious statement, but when you’re absorbed in detail world, it can be hard to zoom out far enough to observe things like this.

We’ve always liked throwback instruments and recording techniques, and a lot of our favorite bands were in their heyday in the 1960s and 70s. “Moving air” has been the name of the game for us – running as many instruments as possible through mics and amps and keeping things as analog, organic, and natural as possible. (Jeeze, did this turn into a food blog?)

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Anyway, we are striving to capture the rawness, passion, and musicality/arrangements of iconic bands like The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Electric Light Orchestra, Michael Jackson, and at least a hundred others.

But at the same, time we like a modern, hi-fi-sounding mix that could bump on a playlist alongside our favorite current day artists. Lately we’ve really dug into the production and mixing of artists like U2, The Talking Heads, Jamiroquai, M83, Daft Punk, and many more. It’s been fun coming up with a mix that we think you’ll enjoy as part of a healthy balanced breakfast. Er, music listening experience.

By the way, Nick and Wonder often do a lot of the editing and mixing of our music. Jared, the engineer at CTM, steered the ship while we tracked these songs and also helped edit, which saved us a ton of time. We love collaborating and bringing in other people to produce and mix, which we learned 2.5 years ago when we started working with producer/engineer Brad Dollar. He was the first “extra” person to join our team, and we hit the ground running with his guidance and encouragement. We think it’s important to hand off our music to a new set of creative ears whenever possible. This time around we have a deadline, so it’s most efficient to bang out these four songs ourselves.

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To have maximum creative control over the drums and the cymbals, Noah decided to record his drum kit without cymbals – he added those in later. This separation means there’s no bleed between the drums and cymbals and allows us to make the kick, snare, and toms sound as big and powerful as we want, and allows for the cymbals to be used as more of a colorful ethereal layer, not just a noisy accent. This is a surprisingly rare technique that was largely used by Stewart Copeland from The Police, but not too many other drummers.

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Cymbals play an important role in all types of music, even orchestral, but when overused, can make a great song sound awful, even when played by a pro. By Noah recording them separate from the drums, Nick was able to have some fun with the effects while mixing the songs. I can’t give too much away yet, but when I heard an early mix of one of the songs, I didn’t even realize one of the sounds I heard was a cymbal. I thought someone sampled a spaceship blasting off. Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, I was wrong.

screen-shot-2016-11-13-at-11-38-10-amThe rhythm section, choosing their best take

Sean somehow has the natural and amazing ability to EQ his own voice – in other words, he can adjust his voice to sit nicely and be heard along with anything we play, whether it’s bombastic or intimate or anything in between. But even so, there are characteristics and qualities about Sean’s voice that we like to emphasize. After all, the beautiful thing about the human voice is that each person’s voice is unique to them.

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Out of the 4 songs on this EP (we’ll reveal what songs soon enough!), a couple of them are more fun and lighthearted, and a couple are a little moodier. The difference in what microphones “pick up” is drastic, so we did a blind microphone shoot-out to see what we liked best. We ended up using two different mics to record Sean’s voice. We chose according to the range of his melodies and also on how his voice sits in the mix of the band’s instrumentation. One of the mics sounded huskier and complimented Sean’s lower range beautifully, and another one was clearer and picked up more midrange, which helped his voice sit on top of the band. For anyone who wants to know, those mics were a Bock 251 and an original vintage Neumann U67, respectively.

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Back in Michigan, we have our own studio where we’ve always recorded our music. We have a great set-up in a lovely location, and we’ve always been able to make ourselves (and other artists, too) some killer-sounding records. But the one thing our MI studio doesn’t have (yet) is a grand piano. CTM has one that we can record with anytime we want, which is awesome.

dsc06531Pharaoh’s House Recording – Belmont, MI

So… I didn’t actually play any piano on this set of songs. But one morning I was warming up on my trumpet in the piano room, and noticed the gorgeous sounds coming out of the piano as my trumpet caused the piano strings to vibrate. I asked Jared if we could mic the piano while I recorded trumpet so we could capture not only my trumpet, but the atmospheric sound of the strings as well. He said sure, why not? So I played the trumpet and Noah held the sustain pedal down so the strings were free to ring. It definitely adds a cool effect to the trumpet part. We also had Sean sing into the piano for a similar effect. You’ll hear all this glory in the same song… but I’m not telling you which one yet. This is a great example of moving air – actually recording the ambience in real time, not digitally adding it in later.

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Being a 5-piece band where everyone plays multiple instruments is a lot of fun, and at times it can be a challenge because we have to consciously not overplay or fight each other to be heard. When we write a new song, we choose an instrumentation that best lends itself to the message and mood of the song. We often consider how we’ll later execute the parts at a live show. We can always alter a song and have a live version that’s different than the studio version, but at the same time, it’s fun to challenge ourselves to utilize only the best instrument options and not get ourselves so busy that we can’t enjoy performing. Even so, it can be a juggling act, but hey, no one ever said performing music is easy.

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Sometimes less is more, and sometimes that allows us to get even more creative. Nick and Wonder both have certain effects they like to add to their guitar and bass parts, but it’s like frosting on a cake; too much of a tasty thing can be… well, not tasteful.

Like many bass players, Wonder was actually a guitar player before he joined our band. He learned bass so that he could join The Outer Vibe, and that was back in the day when his mom would drop him off for band practice because he was too young to have a driver’s license. He skipped prom to sneak into bars and play shows with us.

But anyway, Wonder has spent hundreds of hours developing a bass tone that is functional as the bottom end of a band but still heard. He’s tried a variety of amps, cabs, and pedals for both recordings and live. His latest set-up is a Mesa Boogie M6 Carbine combo amp, which is the only amp we use that isn’t vintage. Wonder runs a handful of effects pedals on occasion, such as a delay effect, when he has a bassline that needs a little extra something special. He will often record an entire song with a standard bass tone, and then double it with ear candy layers that stick out in certain spots.

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While producing a song, we’re always on the lookout for extra little somethings to add interest. Not a separate melody or a new part, but one of those subtle things that maybe only the true music lovers will notice after maybe the 4th or 5th listen through the song… or one of those things you might not notice while listening on a phone, but something you’d pick out while listening to a vinyl or through a good set of speakers. I can already think of a dozen of you who pick this stuff out in our recordings, because you’ve mentioned it to me in conversations at shows. 🙂

We call this stuff “ear candy,” and we do have a few favorite go-to sounds. One of them is the sound of Nick’s Fender Vibro-Lux guitar amp getting bumped. Wait, what? If you know anything about guitars and amps, then this is probably old news to you. But if you’re like me and aren’t very well-informed when it comes to guitar, here ya go.

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A lot of guitar amps have built-in reverb, but Fender has a line of vintage amps from the mid 1960s with an iconic, widely-recognized reverb sound. This is the classic “surf guitar” sound you hear on old Dick Dale songs. These amps were of course widely used for other genres too, but when you’re a surf disco band, you’re going for the Dick Dale sound.

So these specific Fender amps contain a reverb tank, which is a metal box with metal springs stretched across the inside. If you bump the amp, the springs knock against each other, creating an odd clanking sound. (Ever hear musicians talk about spring reverb? There you have it.)

It’s not good for the amp to do this often, so we don’t. But it’s one of those sounds we like to sometimes record and then sneak in the middle of a verse to fill out some space without being too busy. For example, if you watch the “Rose Colored Shades” video below, you’ll hear the reverb tank hit 23 seconds into the song, right after the first line of lyrics. Kinda cool, right? We think so, and you’ll hear a little more of it on these new songs, too.

Another go-to layer of ear candy we use a lot is claps. The more people clapping, the merrier! Well, as long as they can clap in time. The nice thing about recording claps is that it’s easy to set up one microphone in a room and they sound pretty good. The tricky part is that it only takes one person’s smirk to start a trainwreck of giggles, and then we have to redo the take cuz we ruined it by acting like middle schoolers. And that, friends, is why we are all in a band together.

Noah is going to kill me for including this video… but oh well. This was back in May 2014, recording some claps and “heys” for a song we wrote that none of you have ever heard. We’re saving it to use as a B side someday because we don’t think you’re ready for it yet. 😉


Now that’s what I call teamwork.

And last but not least, my personal favorite of all the fun sounds… the vibra-slap. We use this percussion toy at least a few times on every album. You can hear it on Mystery, Sold My Brain, Hoka Hey… and one of these new tracks for sure. Maybe more. 🙂

fullsizerender-13The vibra-slap. I hate selfies, but felt this one was absolutely necessary.

Five musicians with five lifetimes of musical influences means our songs have the potential to be really interesting or really cluttered… or both! That’s one of the many reasons we decided to invent a genre of our favorite sounds and influences, and then challenge ourselves with some limitations. It’s surprisingly not stifling at all. It’s actually very helpful.

One way that we try to keep our ideas and the sound of our band cohesive is by creating what we call a sonic mood board. We made a Spotify playlist, along with a list of notes, that includes all of our favorite sounds that I’ve been talking about in these recent journal entries. Our notes look something like this:

“we love the drum sounds of the late 1970s”

“we like the keyboard ambience in the second verse of ‘Cold Cold Cold’ by Cage The Elephant”

“we like how The Strokes feature the opening bass riff in ‘Juicebox’ but then filter it for the verse so it doesn’t fight the vocal.”

This is some really detailed stuff. Like, REALLY detailed. We put hours and hours into playing, listening, thinking, and refining our craft. Music is truly an art, and our songs are masterpieces to us. When it’s all said and done, our hopes are that everyone can listen to our music, enjoy it, appreciate it, and have a good day. A great song is a great song, but they all have to start somewhere. The magic doesn’t happen on its own.

Lisa Kacos
lisa.kacos@gmail.com
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